The bible is a book that presents eternal truths in rich vivid imagery. To better understand God’s teachings, it is imperative that we have a working knowledge of the meaning and usage of biblical imagery. In this lesson we will explore the biblical imagery of the yoke.
When the bible speaks of a yoke, it is referencing a wooden bar or frame used to join animals together for the purpose of pulling a load or farm implement, such as a plow. Literal usages of yoke are, in fact, rare in scriptures. Under the Law of Moses, God specified the only suitable heifer for sacrifices was one which had not been yoked (Numbers 19:2; Deuteronomy 22:3). On another occasion, when the Philistines sent the captured Ark of the Covenant back to Israel on a new cart pulled by “two milk cows on which there ha[d] never come a yoke” (1 Samuel 6:10). To symbolize the death that would come to those who did not fight the Ammonites, Saul cut up “a yoke of oxen” and sent the pieces “throughout all the territory of Israel” (1 Samuel 11:7). The prophet Elisha, the successor of Elijah, was called while plowing with “twelve yoke of oxen in front of him” which he sacrificed to the Lord, using the yokes as firewood (1 Kings 19:19, 21). Job’s wealth, before and after his trial, was measured in part by the number of yoked oxen he possessed (Job 1:3; 42:12). Finally, from Jesus’ parable of the Great Banquet, one of the excuses an invited guest used for not coming was, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them” (Luke 14:19).
Of the fifty plus references to the yoke in the bible, the majority use it in a figurative sense. Two aspects are important to understanding these references: 1) The yoke is an image of subjection, service or bondage, just as yoked animals are in service to their master and 2) The yoke is an image of joining together in close fellowship, just as two animals are joined together by means of a yoke.
Most Old Testament references to the yoke are a symbol of political submission to a foreign king. One of the curses the children of Israel would endure for their disobedience was an exceptionally brutal “yoke of iron” placed on their necks by their enemies (cf. Deuteronomy 28:48; Hosea 10:11). For Judah, this curse came to pass in the form of Babylonian captivity. God sent the prophet Jeremiah to warn the nation to submit to “the yoke of the king of Babylon” (Jeremiah 27:8-12). He vividly demonstrated his teaching when, according to God’s command, Jeremiah wore an actual yoke around his neck (Jeremiah 27:2). Ultimately, Babylon was overthrown because of the “exceedingly heavy” yoke they placed on Israel (Isaiah 47:6).
Correspondingly, the image of freedom is portrayed as breaking loose from the yoke of servitude, as seen in such passages as Genesis 27:40; Isaiah 9:4; 10:27; 14:25; 58:6, 9; Jeremiah 30:8; Ezekiel 30:18; 34:27; Nahum 1:12-13 and others. The definitive example is when the Lord God broke the Israelites’ yoke of Egyptian slavery and “made [them] walk erect” (Leviticus 26:13; cf. Jeremiah 2:20). It was the false prophet Hananiah who used this freedom imagery to persuade the people of Jeremiah’s day that their Babylonian captivity would not last long. To illustrate the reality of his false prophecy, he broke the yoke God had commanded Jeremiah to wear (Jeremiah 28:1-17).
Yoke imagery is not reserved solely for references to serving foreign nations. King Solomon had made “his yoke heavy” (1 Kings 12:4) upon the people of Israel through compulsory labor (1 Kings 5:13; 9:22; 11:28) and taxes (1 Kings 4:7). In his folly, Solomon’s son, Rehoboam ignored the pleas of the people for relief and added to his father’s “heavy yoke” (1 Kings 12:4-14), thus dividing the kingdom between the ten northern tribes and the two southern tribes (1 Kings 12:16-24). In the New Testament, Paul gave instructions to Christians who were “under a yoke as slaves” to “regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled” (1 Timothy 6:1).
Because yoking joins two animals together, it also is used as a symbol of close alliance and union. Therefore, God’s fierce anger was kindled against Israel when he “yoked himself to Baal of Peor” (Numbers 25:3, 5). Additionally, Paul warned the Corinthians to “not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14a), alluding to the Mosaic Law’s prohibition against yoking together two different kinds of animals (Deuteronomy 22:10). Paul taught that it is not right for Christians to be joined together with unbelievers in common spiritual enterprises or relationships that would defy God’s purposes for the believer’s life. “What partnership had righteousness with lawlessness?” Paul would ask, “Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Balial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (2 Corinthians 6:14b-16). The answer is none; therefore, Christians are not be joined, or yoked, together with unbelievers. Nevertheless, saints should join themselves to other faithful workers imitating the example of Paul and his “true yokefellow” (Philippians 4:3).
Other usages of the yoke metaphor picture sin as a yoke around a person’s neck (Lamentations 1:14). Also in Lamentations, Jeremiah states, “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth” (3:27). The yoke here is possibly a reference to discipline received in one’s youth (ref. Proverbs 13:24; 23:13-15; 29:15). In the New Testament, requiring Gentile Christians to submit to the Law of Moses was likened to a yoke. The apostle Peter asked, “Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). Additionally, the apostle Paul, addressing the same issue, declared, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
The supreme example of yoke imagery is our Lord’s paradoxical use in Matthew 11:28-30:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden light.”
Used elsewhere as a metaphor for harsh, involuntary servitude is completely transformed by our Lord into a good form of submission. In context, Jesus presents a stark contrast to the yoke of the Law of Moses (see above) and the heavy burdens of traditions the Pharisees laid on the people’s shoulders (Matthew 23:4). Rather, our Lord’s yoke of discipleship “is easy” and the burdens of His covenant are “light.” Later the apostle John would write, “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Jesus’ yoke is distinctly different than all other yokes of submission, for only with His yoke can one find rest for their soul.
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